The Ode to Psyche by John Keats is the first of a series of Romantic odes written in 1819 in response to personal, political, and social events of the the time. Psyche, however, diverges from the common qualities of his other odes because in portraying the traditional Romantic inquiries into subject matters such as the nature of reality, or the conceptions of the Artist in an ordered form with specific subjects and themes in that its structure is haphazard and is written with more freedom and so can be termed experimental in style with a varying rhyme scheme and meter. It is primarily an attempt by Keats to restore Psyche, a goddess and the subject of the Poem, to her glory. The Poem can then be grouped into two responses.
In restoring Psyche to glory, she can exist alternatively in a separate dimension or she can be part of an architectural reconstruction born of his imagination or “fancy.” If it is interpreted as the latter, then the Poem also becomes a medium in which Keats explores his classical inclinations, basically that of telling the story of Psyche and Eros and bringing in thematic elements such as the leviathan power of love. But if the latter response is believed to be true, as the critique Harold Bloom believes, then the poem hardly explores this story and becomes an exploration of the more Romantic ideals of the imagination, nature, and the artist. In this interpretation, each response will be talked about separately. The former will include a further inquiry into the Classical tale and the nature of the characterizations of both Psyche and Eros and the possibility of Psyche being a Muse. The latter will take into account features such as architectural mirroring, the imagination as a form of artistry and its connection with Keats’ famed negative capability, and the possibility of this poem being an extension of “The Vale of Soul making” and the resulting implications.
Keats immediately begins the poem by exploring the identity of the goddess that needs glorification. He does this through the use of the setting. Synesthaesia is initially used to focus the reader’s attention on the “two fair creatures” in the middle of the forest clearing. This focus is created because the assimilation of senses that the use of synesthaesia implies shows the extent of the rhapsodizing the the observer does, the narrator and also the readers, of these creatures. In exploring this identity further, it is notable that Keats does not immediately recognize Psyche by her true identity but can only recognize her as the partner of “The winged boy” or Eros at the end of stanza 2.
Upon recognizing her, there is no doubt that Keats wishes to signify that, in both interpretations, that Psyche was no mere mortal, but a Goddess and deserves to be given the respect that this position insinuates. The Ode itself starts with the use of a synecdoche “O Goddess!” that emphasizes the divine qualities of Psyche. She is also referred to as being part of “Olympus’s faded hierarchy”, Olympus alluding to the abode of the King of Gods, Zeus. And in signifying the extent to which she differs from mortals, it is logical that Keats would express her divinity in physical terms. Yet, Keats does not want to acknowledge that this divinity only exists, but wants to emphasize the sheer extent of this divinity. He does this by using visual imagery that demonstrates Pysche’s remarkable physical attributes. She is the “latest born and loveliest vision”, fairer than “Phoebe” and “Vesper,” the goddesses of the moon and Venus. This then becomes a subtle means of causing the reader to question the lack of Psyche’s glorification. In espousing this questioning, Keats attempts to persuade readers that a celebration is needed if Psyche is really as divine as described.
If this celebration is needed, Keats then describes, again using visual and aural imagery, the extent of how what is needed has been ignored. “There is no virgin choir, no voice, no lute, no oracle, etc. Displaying this procession in list form, with an anaphora in the middle (Nor altar…nor virgin. choir), Keats describes the extent of his frustration at this absence. There even might be signs of anger and a deep fanaticism that he feels the goddess deserves. This may be the reason why he describes the “prophet” as “pale-mouthed.” This would similar to images of a person being red-faced after an argument which simply goes on to symbolize the extent of the devotion that Keats feels is necessary. His anger could however be also directed at the discontinuation of Pagan practices. The phrases “Holy the air, the water, and the fire” refer to the ancient Pagan worshipping of the 4 elements as extensions of God-like qualities. It is also this discontinuation, coupled with the lack of glorification of Psyche that adds to his anger.
The question now becomes how Keats can correct the wrongs born of this ignorance. He suggests a traditionally Romantic solution, that of using the imagination. “With all the gardener Fancy e’er feign”, he will dress the “trellis of a working brain” of stars without a name.” Because these stars are unnamed, Keats either to produce stars more grand than any produced so far in order to make up for the lost time of glorification.